As a transvestite I used to believe in ‘the woman within’. I felt, when I cross-dressed, closer to my ‘feminine side’ – though what I experienced was more a release of pressure, a kind of pleasurable lift as if I was walking out after being indoors for a month. ‘Relief dressing’ was good for me; it increased my sensitivity, making me softer, calmer and more alive. And to dress in front of others required a special kind of ‘tuning out’, a deliberately-willed blindness where I didn’t ask questions. I was on display but chose not to know it. Though, of course, I was vulnerable. It was as if I’d been turned inside out, with all my feelings on show. And it was that exposure that both set me apart and made me strong.
My position was simple. I believed I was being more honest than the other men, the straight guys, who had the same feelings but were afraid to show them. In my private imaginings they were the stern men of action who kept at a distance and always wore a mask. But my attempts to pull rank didn’t get far. The men I had in mind simply shrugged their shoulders and carried on with their business, remarking casually that it didn’t bother them. Perhaps I wanted a reaction, a kind of reverse validation where they showed their dislike, or told me I was being stupid.
Sometimes we thrive on rejection. I found that being in opposition gave me definition and made me seem strong – even to myself. There was a magic about it, an inner frisson from being alive and untouchable; and while I was taking my stand, I knew who I was.
But there were other voices inside, telling me to stay hidden:
- It would be easier. I was fearful of what men might do; that once I was known I might be followed and given the treatment. In my mind I saw broken glass, paint sprays and blood on the doorstep.
- I knew in my heart that my appearance jarred. To some people it seemed deliberately provocative, as if I was shouting, “Look at me!” For a few of them – potential bullies, abusers, rapists – I was asking for it.
- My ‘sensible self’ told me that women’s clothes were impractical and designed for a different body shape. They were to keep girls girlie and obsessed with appearance.
- There was an analysis that explained it all in terms of ‘stepping down’ from a position of male power. It was a contrary act, similar to the French aristos dressing up as shepherds at Versailles.
- I was a child in a gown. Sooner or later I’d grow up.
But of course it wouldn’t go away or stay hidden.
I had plenty of time to get used to my trans-self, from the private struggles of youth, through my ‘harmless’ dressing in the house, to being ‘outed’ by the papers and appearing in public. I learned on the way that going public is a continuous effort – and who wants to live on permanent emergency call-out? Because to keep up an effective presence involves a high-energy readiness to deal with other people’s reactions, fielding anything from awkward looks to rude jokes and direct challenges. It’s oh-so much easier to blend in, put on a suit and walk around being ‘normal’.
And it’s natural to go through phases, sometimes standing up to be counted and sometimes ducking out.
But as long as part of me remained undercover I could only see myself as a rara avis, defined by being ‘other’. And my negation went deep. So for much of the time I was a functioning doer and achiever, but when it came to self, I lacked connection or inner balance. Like a child in an exam, I was too busy – or nervous – to understand what was happening.
To give a few examples:
Much like the so-called ‘straight guys’ I worked flat out. Nothing could stop me, my purpose was to get things done. And to go home at night having dealt with several major crises gave me a purpose.
I was expressive, but not in that way. I’d learned at school that being effeminate was a no-no. Being caught out smelling flowers or reading poetry soon led to attacks, so it was better to keep my girliness hidden.
As a young adult, I used diversionary tactics. So I’d shout rather than cry, speak out, laugh and be energetic, keeping up a pumped-up front – especially to myself.
Even when I went public, I still felt brittle and exposed. I imagined people were watching and passing judgement. In a sense I didn’t quite know where to put myself.
I do remember a couple of incidents.
In one, we were celebrating an election win at our house and the rooms were full of left-wing Labour friends. I have a memory of dancing downstairs to thunderous music, wearing high heels and a long kaftan. As a tall man, I was aware – and secretly proud of – the balancing act required. Part of me was dancing in darkness just for its own sake, and part of me wanted to be admired for what I could do. I felt safe in this company to show my girlie-self.
Later, during a visit to the toilet, I realised my mistake. On the way there I passed J., a councillor who I’d campaigned with. He was young and slightly-built with red hair and a foxy, rather guarded expression. When I returned to the landing he was standing in a doorway next to his girlfriend, watching me. I could see he had something to say so I got in first, telling a story involving a mutual friend. J. looked me up and down as if he hadn’t heard a word.
“What’s this about?” he said. His eyes had hardened, but he was grinning.
I knew what he meant but chose to put it off. “You enjoying the party?” I asked.
“Why’re you like that?” he asked.
“How do you mean?”
“Why do you wear that?”
“It’s my choice.”
“But what for?”
“What for? For nothing. For myself.”
“It doesn’t suit.”
“You shouldn’t be like that. Looks wrong.”
Shrugging, I began to walk away, but then turned back. I couldn’t leave it. He’d got under my skin, and the anger made me hot and breathless. “Piss off,” I hissed. “You wouldn’t dare say that to a woman.”
Behind that statement was so much he couldn’t understand. My childhood fears, the inner flirtation with being a woman; most of all, my balance between confusion and defiance.
It was a risk because I’d given him an excuse to take if further. In the past at school, swearing at someone guaranteed a beating, but he didn’t call out or come after me, so perhaps he wasn’t absolutely serious. Looking back now, I think I should have talked to him.
In the other incident I was standing in a pub with a group of friends. I was wearing jeans and a red, flower-patterned blouse. I remember two men by the bar, staring and exchanging remarks. There was a ha-ha sneeriness about them, a kind of chin-out invitation directed at me. I knew their purpose was to weaken me. The pub was their territory and their hard, threatening stares said, ‘keep out’.
Nobody else noticed, and I didn’t tell my friends. I was ashamed, and thought, or hoped, I might be mistaken. But my own shakiness was a reminder of bullying at school. When we left, I wanted people by me, but I didn’t have the courage to admit it. We drifted back to the cars in ones and twos, with everyone enjoying themselves except me.
The men didn’t follow and nothing happened, but I felt their stares for a long time afterwards. In a way, they’d won.
Then there were the stories of other people.
- My friend R. was driven out of her estate when a group of youths discovered she was transgender. They lay in wait every evening when she came home from work. Fortunately, she was able to move out before their threats turned to violence.
- When I visited a trans pub in Islington I was warned about police arrests and body searches.
- At the same pub there were people who had lost friends, loved ones and jobs.
- Many trans people I’ve met have, like me, come through self-esteem issues and addiction problems after repeated attempts to ‘kick the habit’.
But of course people survive, and many of them were supported by close friends or by some of their family.
Nowadays I’m out in public. I go to the supermarket on my own wearing women’s clothes and everyone can see I’m a man because I don’t wear a wig or make-up. It’s the result of writing a memoir about my cross-dressing and having to live up to it. And I’m lucky because I live in a liberal-ish town where people don’t want to fight me. So it feels particularly good to be myself and behave naturally without being on show, even though no one else looks much like me.
So what about the book?
Heaven’s Rage is not a confessional, and although it contains my trans story, it aims to cover a full range of experience. To quote ajh, a reviewer on Amazon:
‘Heaven’s Rage is autobiographical yet touches the universal. It has ambitious scope. There are sections on music and gardens, but the author really strikes his form on vulnerability, cross-dressing, illness, alcoholism, relationships. This could be depressing, yet it is uplifting.
We enter the author’s life and live it through with him, feeling the hurts and the awkward compensations of vulnerability, the separateness of difference. We almost touch the quality of the cross-dressing feeling. As we do this, quietly, quietly, an alchemy is turning the iron of our heart to gold. In a microcosm of his own life experience, we end up as he does with a quiet, complex understanding of many of the issues. Walking through them our attitude softens, becomes more nuanced. I want to use the word love, yet this is never spelt out.
I sense that the author could only have written this book now, after a long assimilation and integration of the many subtle aspects. I look forward very much to reading a novel from someone who has done this level of inner work.’
In fact writing a memoir involves turning complex experience into a single point of view, which meant I had to simplify my memories into discrete incidents, creating a clear, consistent self-image. Of course, fitting the real person to an image isn’t always easy, and words narrow life, but it gave me a framed space where people can look in and ask questions – and they do, in their heads. It’s a safe place I go back to where I’m in the picture as both subject and object. The world’s out there, people are walking back and forth, sometimes they’re staring or waving, but I’m quite comfortable. They’re guests at my party, seeing me as I am, and if they don’t like it, the loss is theirs.
And the men?
I understand now their jokes and resistance, their willingness to do. For most men, what I wear doesn’t matter, they’re direct and fair-minded and life’s more important. And I’ve been cross-dressed in toilets and on trains with football supporters and had lots of support from caring men who act independently without fear or favour. Admittedly, there are still a few blokey blokes whose looks scare me. But I tell myself to keep walking and look the other way because I can feel my hot-and-shaky male anger bubbling up – and that’s not how I want to be. But of course, if I’m honest, there’s always a macho somewhere inside. I can swear and shout like the next man, the only difference is that for me it’s more important to recognise the man and the woman inside, to talk about them and know them, and not be in denial.
Heaven’s Rage is an imaginative autobiography. Reporting on feelings people don’t usually own up to, Leslie Tate explores addiction, cross-dressing and the hidden sides of families. Writing lyrically, he brings together stories of bullying, childhood dreams, thwarted creativity and late-life illness, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life.
Buying Heaven’s Rage:
- Signed copies can be bought in the UK here.
- Amazon UK has paperback and ebook copies here.
- Amazon USA has copies here.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.
In the next blog, LIVING TRUTHFULLY UNDER IMAGINARY CIRCUMSTANCES, I describe my target audience, USP, genre and why I really write .